Updated: May 3, 2022
This is a transcript from a Mindsprings Practice Space session.
I’ve got a great question from one of our community, who submitted it in the chat, which I’d quite like to take the time to answer.
She was talking about a great sense of greyness and boredom that has descended recently. Everything seems really dull and boring and grey and lifeless. Usually, she would go abroad to fight in Libya or travel around Fiji or do something very exciting and dangerous and dramatic. And then come back three months later, feeling refreshed. But for obvious reasons, it’s not so possible at the moment and it feels different. It’s a different kind of down: not the high energy, high drama periods that she’s had in the past, but something much more depressed and depressive. And she was pondering what to do.
I think it’s a really brilliant question and one that I think is worth exploring. It ties in very powerfully with what we’re doing here.
What we experience of the world is almost entirely to do with our minds
The world that we’re living in is neither one thing nor another. It’s not boring and it’s not super-duper exciting and dramatic. It’s just doing its thing. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s what they call the “perfection of all phenomena”, completely sacred and completely self-arising and self-displaying and self-dissolving.
However, what we experience of the world is almost entirely to do with our minds. That is to say, our body-mind: what’s going on in our body, what’s going on in our mind. And this is a little bit akin to what I was saying during the meditation: “it’s the same world with different sunglasses”.
So sometimes we see the world through a very bright, highly polarised pair of sunglasses where everything is wonderful and Buddhist and enlightened and miraculous. Sometimes we have that when we have fallen in love, for example. Everything seems just magical. And then, six months later, when you’ve been dumped unceremoniously and your heart is broken, the same streets or the same landscape or the same view looks like an arid radioactive wasteland. Not because it in itself is any different, but because you’re wearing different glasses.
They’re all glasses, whether you’re seeing everything as beautiful or whether you’re seeing everything as painful
And we can postulate that this is what’s going on with our mental health as well. Sometimes the world is unbearably intense and overwhelming and frightening. And then sometimes the very same world is incredibly dead and dull and depressed or depressing. And one way of understanding this is about these “parts”. [Note: we have been studying the psychological theory of parts which suggests that our psyches are made up of differing parts which work together as a family – sometimes healthily, sometimes not.]
It’s like we get possessed. We get possessed by a broken-hearted part that gathers up all the heartbreak that we’ve ever felt and rolls it into one black pair of sunglasses for us to wear. Or it may be the enlightened part that rolls all the beautiful, enlightened experiences we’ve had and all the retreats and rolls them into these beautiful Buddhist-tinted diamond glasses. But from the Buddhist point of view, they’re all glasses, whether you’re seeing everything as beautiful or whether you’re seeing everything as painful. It’s just the nature of sunglass-mind. It’s like a dream. Sometimes the dream is lovely and sometimes the dream is awful.
But this marriage of Buddhist insight with therapeutic insight in Richard Schwartz’s work, the Internal Family Systems, is really powerful.
These glasses that we put on are much more to do with relics of our childhood
Schwartz cleverly groups these sunglass lenses into three categories, which are not random. I don’t suddenly randomly put my depressed glasses on. He postulates that these feeling tones, these glasses that we put on are much more to do with relics of our childhood. These are parts of us that are styled around certain ways of being in the world when we were kids, teenagers or young adults.
Some of them are managers, their main job is to keep you safe, keep everything dialled-down and controlled. So meditation often calls on the managers. We often co-opt managers in meditation: “Stay put, don’t wander, don’t be distracted.” It’s the sort of managerial part that gets co-opted into meditation.
Then there are what he calls the firefighters. And these are the parts of us who, when strong material comes up, when we get triggered, when we feel trapped, for example, roar into action. When we are in a painful, emotional bind with somebody, or maybe our boss is reminding us of our brutal parents, then – rather than sit in the seemingly intolerable feelings that provokes – the firefighter part leaps into the fray. And that part might get really drunk or sleep with someone really inappropriate. Or fly to Libya and join the war or just do a bungee jump or something, anything to distract and to get away from the painful experience of being where you are in your feelings.
So the questioner is describing these two things very clearly. One is the manager, which is like a deadening, depressing: just watch TV, watch iPlayer, make everything really dead and boring. And then the other one is: look for the drama, look for excitement, go away, travel.
The Higher Self doesn’t love the deadness, but it loves the part that makes everything dead
And she makes a very good but erroneous comment that her higher Self or the big Self that I talk about would love the boredom, would love the deadness. But that’s not true.
The Higher Self doesn’t love the deadness, but it loves the part that makes everything dead because it sees that that making everything dead and boring and depressed is that part’s way of protecting you. So it doesn’t really love the deadness because no one loves deadness, but it loves the part that uses that deadening as a way of keeping safe. It’s like: “No, but I understand. I see why you’re doing that.”
And then the Big Self can work with that managerial part and explore the fact that it doesn’t have to do that. That deadening tactic – which dates back to whenever – is not really applicable. It’s no longer relevant or useful. You don’t need to make everything dead and grey like a Beckett play. You can actually just relax.
We don’t love the negative effects of the part but instead, we love the part itself.
The parts are trying to avoid the pain of what Schwartz calls the exiles
So it’s stepping back and going, “Oh yeah, there’s a part of me that would rather kill everything and make it grey and boring rather than deal with this other part of me, which is in real pain.” Because the managers and the firefighters, these two are protectors. They’re trying to avoid the pain of what Schwartz calls the exiles.
The exiles are the bits that the system can’t bear. Can’t bear to have contact with that very vulnerable part or that very frightened part or that very neglected part. That has to stay off the stage. And to keep it off the stage, you have the pyrotechnics of the firefighter or the intense control of the manager. So this is how we can end up swinging backwards and forwards between getting drunk and then being really, really, really guilty and shamefaced about it. Or going off on some crazy adventure and then coming back and being really depressed. Both of those behaviours come from extreme parts. And to some extent, they work, but at some point, they stop working.
And at that point, this path suggests that rather than try and get rid of the parts or change the parts or become a better person or go on wilder holidays or take antidepressants, it would be better to just take a step back and start to relate to the parts as they are.
Why do you think getting blind drunk is a good idea?
“Why are you doing this? Who are you? What is it that makes you want to throw yourself off a mountain top? Why do you think getting blind drunk is a good idea? Why do you think being depressed and deathly is a good idea?” There starts to be a dialogue with these parts that have been hogging the stage. And that doesn’t mean that you have to go straight to the wounded part, but you have to find this Big Self. The Big Self that knows the parts, recognises the recklessness of the firefighter and the rigidity of the manager. Because as soon as you can spot that then there’s somebody or something that is doing the spotting. And that is the Big Self.
Q: Alistair, so what happens if I do find the exile?
Well, first of all, you have to make sure that the managers and the firefighters are okay with you going towards the exile because they’ve spent their entire life making sure no one even knows the exile exists. And they, as a rule, not always, but they, as a rule, they hate the exile. That’s why that part is exiled. They would do anything rather than let that part become seen and vulnerable.
Q: You’re saying I’m feeling this way is because the manager is trying to make everything grey so I avoid seeing the exile?
That would be probably Richard Schwarz’s way of thinking about it. Yes.
Q: That’s really deep. Okay, I discovered the exile. What do I do?
So, first of all, you need to work with the managers and the firefighters. First, you have to get them on your side, as it were. So the metaphor that Schwartz uses is an internal family. If you just swoop in like child services and pull the child out, then the whole family is in an uproar and even the abusive parents will kick off.
Their way of keeping the family safe is making the family miserable
What you need to do is see how the system works. The exile part has been exiled for a reason, according to the logic of the firefighter and the manager. They think that the exile part is so vulnerable and so weak or so intolerably sensitive that it can never, ever survive. And it needs to be just ignored or walled up or pushed off the stage. And their way is the only way of keeping this family safe. But actually, their way of keeping the family safe is making the family miserable or kind of self-destructive.
So first of all, we need to talk to them and it is a question of actually talking to them and going, “Why are you doing this? What do you think would happen if you stopped being a daredevil and going on these crazy jaunts? What would happen if you stopped being depressed and dampening everything down?” And the power of IFS is that you can actually dialogue with these parts.
You can ask them questions:
“Why are you doing this?”
“Well, because if I didn’t do this, you’d be helpless, you’d be pathetic, you’d die instantly.”
And then you can go, “Okay, so how old do you think I am?”
“Well, you are three.”
And you go, “Okay. You know that I’m actually fifty one?”
“No, no, you can’t be 51. You’re only three.”
“Well, how old are you?”
“Well, I’m five.”
It’s okay, you don’t need to do this anymore. I’m okay. I can look after you
So then you find out that this ferocious depressive part or this crazy addictive part is actually a five-year-old child trying desperately to keep things together. And then you can reassure it, you can be the parent, you can be the adult, and you can say, “It’s okay, you don’t need to do this anymore. I’m okay. I can look after you, I can look after the depressive part, and I can definitely look after the exile.”
And then gradually the whole system becomes less toxic, becomes less rigid because the thing that is most distressing in a human life is when our parts hate each other. So when one part drinks and then another part beats that part up for like six days with merciless critique. And so all the energy is inwards. It’s all in the inner battle. And meanwhile, the exiled part is just withering away, kind of sealed away.
Gradually, when you can bring the firefighters and the managers on board, then they will allow the exile part to come into the light and you can look after it. Or maybe you can instruct them how to best love and support that part and, very often, what happens is the exile part, the thing that’s so terrible and so awful and so unspeakable, when it comes forward, is fine. It was some misunderstanding from when you were a child or some shock or some trauma. But as an adult, you can just hold that child-part and reassure it.
But the point is that the firefighter and the manager don’t want to entertain a relationship with that exile part and they don’t want you to either unless everything is made explicit and talked through and negotiated, just as you would in a real family. Make sure that everybody is on board with the kind of healing process.
What I experience as “me” is often a war between various parts
Q: That’s made me think a lot.
Yes! And the beautiful thing is that this is self-love or Maitri in the most practical way. It’s a bit complicated to get your head around it. But once you have, I find it’s a really accurate description of what goes on in my mind and has gone on in my mind as I’ve gone through my life. I’m not one thing. What I experience as “me” is often a war between various parts. And recognising that can be an incredible liberation.
But then, beyond that, to actually work with those parts as intelligent subpersonalities is so enlivening. They’re not abstractions. You can feel when that part has taken you over. In IFS-speak they say you’ve “merged” with the part: you are the depressed person, or you are the daredevil, or you are the drinker or you are the sex addict or you are the control freak. That is Alistair, me, Alistair.
And that merging, where you believe you are the part, is the first problem to overcome. And this is where the “backspace” comes in. We drop back and we go, “Okay, yeah, I’m sometimes this and then I’m sometimes that. Sometimes I’m this and then I’m sometimes that and occasionally I am this as well.” And we recognise that we are multiple and that’s okay.
All that energy that’s gone into these warring parts is liberated.
And then we go about the work of harmonising the parts. Listening to them, hearing their rationale for the way they behave. And when the inner conflicts are resolved, there’s this great sense of liberation. All that energy that’s gone into these warring parts is liberated.
In some ways, this whole work of IFS is relieving ourselves from ego-obsession. It’s the thing that Buddhists are always telling us to do. But it gives us a very practical way of doing it, rather than just saying, “Stop being so obsessed with yourself.” It’s like: “Well, the reason I’m obsessed with myself is because these parts are locked into this internecine war that has been going on for 50 years.” And until you resolve that inner war, then it’s very difficult to not be self-absorbed because all your energies are tied up in this battle.
And from the Buddhist point of view, that’s just the beginning. So once we’ve ended the battle of ourselves and peace reigns inside our mind, then we can see the world as it is and others as they are and truly love them because we are not pouring all our energy into our own battle.
I’d love to know your thoughts about internal family systems. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!